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International relations

Olympic sexism row pushes Japan toward work discrimination treaty

Lawmakers and business community want ratification of UN convention on labor

A woman works at a factory near Osaka: Japan is among a dozen countries that have not ratified a United Nations convention to prevent discrimination in the workplace. (Photo by Atsushi Oka)

TOKYO -- Japanese lawmakers and business leaders have begun pushing the government to ratify a United Nations convention barring employment discrimination, propelled by a global backlash against a former Olympic chief's sexist remarks.

Naoto Omi, acting chairman of labor organization Rengo, plans to soon visit Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at his office to call on ratification of the International Labor Organization's Convention 111, which bans employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion and political opinion.

Momentum is building for ratification. Japan is facing a moment of reckoning after the resignation of Olympics Chairman Yoshiro Mori over his remarks raised questions about Japan's commitment to gender equality.

The document is one of the ILO's eight key conventions. Of the 187 ILO member nations, 175, or 94%, have ratified it. Besides Japan, the U.S., Singapore and Malaysia are among the countries that have not adopted the convention.

Attending a public hearing at a lower house budget committee meeting on Feb. 24, Omi stressed the need for ratification.

"Convention 111 is the international standard for banning discrimination," said Omi, who compared its similarity to the spirit of the Olympic Charter. Without ratification, Japan "will be seen as lacking a commitment to protect human rights. Mr. Mori's remarks are a testament to the lack of that commitment," he added.

Lawmakers in both chambers of Japan's Diet unanimously adopted a resolution pledging to push for the adoption of all unratified conventions in 2019, coinciding with the 100th year anniversary of the founding of the ILO.

Part of the reason for Japan's inaction is its sectionalized bureaucracy that prevents coordination. The Health and Labor Ministry, which handles matters involving the ILO, says Japan needs to modify domestic labor laws to meet the convention's requirements.

For example, the labor standard law, governed by the labor ministry, prohibits employers from assigning pregnant women to a job involving carrying heavy items. Another law regulating ship workers says pregnant women cannot work on ships. This law is overseen by the transport ministry. In addition, treaty ratification requires coordination with the foreign and justice ministries.

Banning employment discrimination based on political opinion also requires adjustments to laws governing public servants and Self-Defense Forces personnel.

Until now, Japan's lack of ratification has never caused obvious problems. But Western countries have grown particularly critical of countries that do not take action against discrimination. Inaction could reduce Tokyo's standing in the international community or affect business overseas down the road.

The Economic Partnership Agreement between Japan and the EU, which took effect in February 2019, requires Japan to make continuous efforts toward ratification.

Shinichi Ago, professor at Ritsumeikan University warned that a lack of action could "prompt discussions with the EU side."

"Sending a message toward ratification could mark a first step showing Japan truly has changed," said Ago.

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